Laura Owens

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, where Laura Owens spent a month in residence in the spring of 2000, provided the ideal site for the Los Angeles-based artist’s first solo museum show: Owens’s clever and oddball mixing of styles and vocabularies is a perfect match for the eclecticism of Mrs. Gardner’s Fenway Court. Owens, who is known for her paintings and collages characterized by their quirky levity and kitschy twists on everything from high art to “women’s work,” once again offered up an idiosyncratic balance of stylistic elusiveness and retro sweetness. Many of the nine paintings and drawings here were inspired by works in the museum’s extensive collections Japanese kimono, a Chinese tapestry, a small drawing by fifteenth-century Italian master Filippino Lippi—as well as by the celebrated hothouse tulips, hyacinths, and daffodils that grace its inner-court. With their groovy flowers, bats, bees, and spiderwebs (Owens’s signatures) layered in the abstract space of neo-geo, Color Field, and pattern painting, the works also evince a mod-ish ’60s sensibility.

The most ambitious (and endearing) image was a large collage and painting on canvas featuring a spider monkey swinging from a branch as a baby monkey hangs on (all works Untitled, 2001). The curvy, lushly painted tree is rooted in a quiltlike patchwork hillside. Flatly rendered arcs of pale yellow, green, and blue, deliberately parodying Kenneth Noland’s targets, rise behind the tree like a rainbow. Here Owens explores a full range of textures in the collaged elements and the paint itself: The monkeys’ black fur is soak-stained into the canvas like ink into paper, while a spiderweb in the tree and flower petals among the undergrowth below are composed of impastoed daubs of paint. This simian subject, borrowed from an antique Chinese painting, has appeared in Owens’s work since 1997, but an absurdist element has been added: Thick black construction-paper spectacles cover the adult monkey’s felt eyes. In the lower left corner of the painting, a thinly painted mauve badger (lifted from a nineteenth-century Japanese silk kimono) looks up from a grassy marsh at a full moon behind the monkeys. Owens choreographs the spatial flow of the composition via the animals’ gazes: The badger looks up at the monkeys, the baby smiles down at the badger, and the adult peers at something outside the frame.

Tenderness has long been a central theme in Owens’s oeuvre. In a small work on paper, she puts a spin on a 1504 Filippino Lippi drawing by situating Christ and St. John the Baptist in a fantasy garden; their devotional love is reflected in giant flowers that sprout around them. As in the prototype, the figure of Christ is rendered as effeminate and waiflike, which Owens emphasizes by placing a floral bracelet on his right wrist. The gaze exchanged by the sacred figures is the composition’s focal point; they could be mistaken for lovers.

In another small study of work in the Gardner’s collection, Owens translates an intricately embroidered seventeenth-century textile into a festooned watercolor on paper with brushstrokes imitating stitches. The painter, an erstwhile cross-stitcher, re-creates in dainty brushstrokes the ceremonial silk cloth embroidered with polychrome yams; she heightens the color and omits the crown and two-headed eagle of the original in favor of an open central space. Elsewhere she cuts and pastes intricate patterns into paper and layers her work like appliqué. These strategies are all part of the aesthetic twist Owens puts on gender stereotypes long associated with sewing.

Francine Koslow Miller